The Lieutenant is the middle book in Kate Grenville’s trilogy about the foundation of colonial Australia. Unlike the two books on either side of it, which follow the fortunes of the Thornhill family in the early years of the nineteenth century, this novel is set in the late seventeen hundreds and is based on the true life story of William Dawes, who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788.
Like Dawes, Grenville’s Daniel Rooke is a marine who has been assigned to this expedition on the strength of his abilities as an astronomer. Tasked with recording the expected reappearance of an historical comet, Rooke is allowed to build himself an isolated hut to act as an observatory. This suits him very well as from childhood he has been something of a loner and he is ill at ease in the company of men who seem to take a delight in casual violence. His isolation also means that he is able to begin to build a meaningful relationship with the Cadigal people, the original inhabitants of the Botany Bay area, and gradually to explore their language.
Given my background, inevitably it was the discussion of language that first attracted me to this novel when it was published in 2007. Using only the notes that Dawes made in his original journals, Grenville gradually strips away all the perceptions that we might have about how you learn to communicate with those who don’t speak your tongue: from the debunking of our common British strategy
the boy shouting at Rooke as though he would understand words said loudly enough
to Daniel’s more understandable attempts to systematically collect vocabulary and syntax.
[L]anguage was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine. To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts.
But learning someone’s language is far more than decoding the grammar and the lexis.
You [do] not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who speak it with you
and when Rooke strikes up a friendship with Tagaran, a Cadigal teenager, he begins to realise that to understand a language you have to also develop an understanding of the people themselves and of their culture.
What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary and grammatical forms. It was at the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.
I was fascinated by how difficult some of the group found it to grasp this idea. After all, I’m the grammarian, the one who for years has made a study of the way the bits go together. Perhaps it is because we are all of a certain age and were all taught languages in a very systematic way? I don’t know. I’m actually going to be discussing this book with a similar group later in the year and it will be interesting to see if there is the same reaction.
Other areas of discussion brought more unanimity, however. Inevitably, Rooke’s friendship with the Cadigal comes into conflict with his duties as an officer in the marines. As in The Last Runaway, the main character is forced to question whether or not he should stand by what he knows to be right or follow the path laid down by the community to which he belongs. In Rooke’s case, this means deliberately disobeying an order and then having to take the consequences, which could extend as far as public execution. We talked particularly about how he tries to find a way around his difficulties by telling himself that it will be all right to take part in the expedition to capture six of the Aboriginals because they will be too astute to be taken. As Rooke himself eventually recognises, this is only playing with the truth and he has allowed self-interest to blind him.
If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed. If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong.
Immigration was also raised again. In this instance it came about through our discussion of Grenville’s involvement in the Reconciliation Walk when the people of Australia acknowledged the wrongs that have been done to the Aboriginals over the last two centuries. Several members of the group had relatives who had emigrated to Australia and made it their homes, some two or three generations ago. They echoed Grenville’s own words in respect of how those relatives feel:
[a]s “native-born” Australians, we’ve got nowhere else to call home. If we don’t belong here, we don’t belong anywhere.
Grenville is in the same position as Mrs Reed in The Last Runaway. As a fifth generation Australian she has lost her ties with the country from which her ancestors came. The difference, of course, is that it is her own conscience that is suggesting that she has no right to be there rather than the voices of other immigrants insisting that she leave the country to them. In the Chevalier novel the plight of the American Indians isn’t really up for discussion.
Finally, we felt we had to turn our attention to the way in which violence is justified by those who want power and can find no legitimate way of gaining it. When Rooke goes on the expedition to capture six of the Cadigal people he discovers that he hasn’t been told the full story. If six Aboriginals cannot be captured alive then they are to be slain and their heads brought back to the camp.
‘The heads, Rooke, were to be brought back in the bags provided. Having been severed with the hatchet provided. The governor’s argument was that it was necessary to act harshly once, in order not to have to act harshly again. The punishment inflicted on a few would be an act of mercy to all the others.’
Just two days after the news broke of the murder of James Foley there was no way we could avoid acknowledging that our own history doesn’t bear close examination in this respect. There is always an excuse, always a ‘good’ reason for acting in such an inhuman way, but no excuse, no reason can hide the fact that such behaviour is an act of barbarism, wherever and whenever it takes place.
This wasn’t, perhaps, the happiest note on which to end our Summer School but it did reflect the depth of thought that had gone on and the wide range of topics that we found ourselves engaged with.